Something for nothing? Open Source, Ordnance Survey OpenData and the benefits to you.

The recent announcement of OpenData from the Ordnance Survey has generated a lot of interest within the Environmental industry, here I will try to explain some of the key benefits of using both Ordnance Survey OpenData and Open Source software together and how commercial software providers can use these new developments and opportunities to offer more cost effective solutions to their customers.

Open Source, doesn’t that mean free?

It’s important to differentiate between ‘free as in beer’ and ‘free as in speech’[1] and the English language doesn’t really do this very well, there is a distinction that should be drawn between “for zero cost” and “liberty” although both are described using the word “free”.

First I want to dispel the common misconception that a developer using Open Source software must provide his software under the same license and therefore Open Source software is always zero cost. Whilst this is true for some licenses[2] there are others that actively encourage commercial distribution of ‘derivative works’, for example MapGuide ( is licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) which allows commercial distribution of the product under certain provisions[3], in fact Autodesk’s MapGuide Enterprise[4] does exactly that! This Open Souce base gives Autodesk a great starting point to work from upon which to build their proprietory additions and allowing these more business specific extensions was actually an important part of the choice of the LGPL for the release of MapGuide[3]. Autodesk’s only obligation is to contribute back any changes they make to the core MapGuide, not any of their proprietory Enterprise extensions. It is this obligation that ensures the continued freedom of the base MapGuide for the future.

But what does it actually mean for the user?

The process of developing software, particularly large-scale multi user software, is a difficult and lengthy one, by using an Open Source package as a base the developer vastly decreases the development effort required, without worrying that a commercial provider may decide to withdraw a product, or change licensing terms for the worse. This in-turn allows them to spend more time on the things you want. To twist an analogy, there’s no point reinventing the wheel when what the customer really cares about is that you spend time making the car as good as possible!

By basing a commercial package around an Open Source core the developer can really get a head start on the production of a high quality feature rich application and enable themselves to concentrate on making it fit actual business practice and requirements as well as possible.

But where does OpenData come in?

By standing on the shoulders of Open Source software a developer can get a headstart on the production side of the software, but geospatial software is often pretty useless without some form of mapping!

This is where OpenData comes in, everyone wants to see good maps in their GIS packages, but previously high coverage and high quality also mean high cost either for the developer to bundle or the end user to acquire.

Now the high quality and full coverage OS OpenData is available for widespread distribution at zero cost this barrier to entry is significantly lowered. By reducing or removing the licensing costs of included base mapping the developer is offered two choices, they can cut end user price of their software or they can spend yet more time on improving the software iself, either by investing more time or using the money they would have paid for base mapping to pay for more specialist mapping as required. So either the end user pays less for their system, or they get more for their money!

One such example is the release of OpenData itself, the Ordnance Survey OpenData demostration site itself[5] use the Open Source (BSD Licensed) OpenLayers[6]. Had the Ordnance Survey been required to develop their own viewer, or base one upon a proprietory offering then the software licensing costs may well have been prohibitively expensive for them to offer a demonstration use of their free product.

Indeed the Ordnance Survey OpenData license itself[7] owes more than a little to the Creative Commons movement that it is designed to work in parallel with, a less technical license that grew from the need of Open Source developers to license written and pictorial material under open licenses. Indeed one could argue that without the widespread adoption of Open Source licenses, OpenData may never have happened.

This use of OpenData is a massive commercial opportunity for software developers, indeed Keynetix’s KeySpatial[8] product (itself built around Autodesk’s MapGuide and it’s Open Source underpinnings) is an excellent example of where OpenData can be used to transform the use of GIS within the environmental sector, with high quality mapping data available on tap from the Ordnance Survey this product really comes alive without the requirement for the user to invest heavily in mapping data licensing.

The use of Open Source software and the OS OpenData mapping set really is a win-win scenario for both application developers and end users, developers are offered the choice between cutting costs and increase delivery and both of these options offer significant bonuses for end users.

By standing on the shoulders of the Open Source and OpenData giants the Isaac Newton’s of software development are able to see further than ever before, and the customers had better watch out for what’s coming over the approaching horizon! Not only are we about to see a revolutionary change in how we deal with geographically located data in the UK, it’s rushing towards us very very quickly!

Chris Bray

Chris is a Geospatial Software Engineer and Open Source enthusiast who is very excited about what the future brings both for developers and users.

[1] Gratis versus Libre on Wikipedia –
[2] A definition of Open Source from the Open Source Initiative –
[3] MapGuide Licensing FAQ –
[4] Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise –
[5] OpenData Viewer –
[6] OpenLayers –
[7] OpenData License –
[8] KeySpatial –

3 comments to Something for nothing? Open Source, Ordnance Survey OpenData and the benefits to you.

  • John Croxen

    I understand, belatedly, that one of the primary intentions of OS is to provide “free” maps to “developers”. It was not clear from their website that asking for and being supplied with no less than 6 DVDs would require GIS software in order to see a map on a PC (and print it). Nor is there any obvious guidance (but then the website navigation is poor)on how to acquire the software and whether that is also “free”.

  • John,

    As I mentioned in the post you can use the Ordnance Survey OpenData viewer to see the data without a GIS system –
    If you want your own GIS without paying anything you can use OpenLayers –

    Bear in mind an inexperienced administrator implementing a GIS system for the first time will often spend more in time (time is money after all) setting up their first system using an unknown tool than just buying in a commercially supported off the shelf system such as KeySpatial.


  • John Croxen

    I understand the viewer, which allows me to access maps online. But having been supplied with disks, I am interested in having software which will enable me to use the data on those disks on my PC. OpenLayers appears to offer GIS downloads but the list is over 50 items long and gives no idea what they do or which one to choose. The Key Spatial website talks about 10-users and charges of $125 a month and is clearly designed for largeish commercial organisations. I am simply a member of the public exploring what is on offer from OS. I understand what is available online, but not what the disks are all about. I am forced to conclude that OS OpenData is really for businesses and organisations not individuals, but the website doesn’t really make that clear.

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